This is it. I hear the tinny jingle of my alarm from somewhere beside my bed, so much more irritating at 6:30 in the morning.
I drag my jetlagged body out of bed, and struggle to locate the most appropriate outfit from the jumble of clothes balled up at the end of the bed. I dress quickly and head downstairs to grab something to eat before work. This isn’t my first day back after a two-week luxury break in a sunny resort, though. It’s my first day of volunteering overseas, and I’ve woken up in one of the bottom bunks in a volunteer house dormitory. My teaching placement starts today, and my classroom is an empty basketball court in a small village on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Volunteering has always been something that has drawn me in and excited me. The thought of combining travel with meeting like-minded people and doing some good in the world struck me as being a total no-brainer, which is why at the age of 17 I booked my place on a volunteer abroad programme in Ghana. The summer following my A-Levels and my 18th birthday, whilst most of my friends were packing for their girls’ holidays abroad, I was opting for anti-malaria tablets and arguing with my mum about whether or not I should pack my hiking boots in my suitcase or wear them on the flight. I wanted to pack them and wear something more fashionable to travel in, however my mum disagreed due to weight limits and other reasons that escaped my 18 year old mind. So, on July 14th 2014, I was strolling through Heathrow Airport departures (in my walking boots, of course) trying to kill some time before my flight to Accra, Ghana, and my first independent adventure overseas.
I won’t lie, the homesickness was a killer for me to begin with. I thought that being away from home would be a walk in the park, but I was 18 years old and didn’t really know better. However, once I’d spent a couple of nights in my bunk, and got to know my fellow volunteers (very well, very quickly, as is often the case with dormitories), things began to improve rapidly.
Working Monday to Friday worked very much in our favour, as it allowed us to do what we were all there for during our free time, mainly at weekends: TRAVEL. Ghana was 100% the perfect first country for me to travel to by myself, and it will always hold a place in my heart. Even if you were to ask me now, three years on, I’ll still sing its praises endlessly. We had beaches, wildlife, scenery, and the most incredible opportunity to make a difference. Volunteer options ranged from providing medical care to teaching, building and decorating, and no feeling will ever quite compare to when I was sent a picture, 12 months later, of a painting we did on a primary school outer wall. Knowing that there are children who still see that painting on a day to day basis on their way to and from their classes, still makes my heart swell with pride.
Yes, a large part of why I choose to volunteer is to do with pride – but I don’t see that in a negative way at all. Once you get a taste for helping others, you do whatever you can to satisfy it. Two years later, volunteering drew me in again. The thriving city of Merida, Mexico’s famous cultural capital, was the perfect place to call home for almost two months. Projects here were focused more on teaching English, which was challenging to say the least. However, because of the amount of time I dedicated to some of the projects in Merida, I left Mexico in August 2016 feeling a cocktail of emotions, including proud, nostalgic, and excited; particularly excited to get back to England where it was impossible to sweat from your eyelids, which I’d become worryingly accustomed to during my time in Mexico.
One of my favourite parts of my volunteering is my constant recounting of the bizarre stories, which really did happen, to my friends and family which begin almost as soon as I disembark the plane. Yes, we almost set the kitchen on fire one evening; and yes, I was once approached by someone on a night out who offered me a tissue from his pocket to wipe my sweaty forehead with and proceed to refer to himself as a ‘gentleman’ afterwards. That’s one story that I really wish was untrue, and YES, I wish I could run straight through passport control and back to the departure lounge. Another enormous part of my journeys are the people who I meet along the way, and although we don’t always manage to keep in touch I remember all the experiences we shared together with the fondest nostalgia.
For me, my opportunities to volunteer have had an enormous influence on the person I am today; and I wouldn’t change my own volunteer version of the world for anything.
I get it though, that travelling abroad alone to be scary, and to volunteer even more so. So, I want to end this with a few tips and suggestions for a future in working overseas, from one volunteer to (hopefully) another.
Research your company thoroughly – it will be worth your while.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions – most companies will have a website or social media site for you to do your research, but don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper too – look for reviews, but make sure you look away from the company website, as they won’t post any negative reviews about themselves.
Plan and budget accordingly – whilst volunteering is different from regular travel, it still requires some serious budgeting both during your stay and in the lead up to it.
Bring some food from home – particularly if you suffer from allergies or are fussy, even though the food is one of the most incredible experiences of travelling!
Learn the language – I can guarantee that you’ll learn much more than you’d expect, but it won’t hurt your chances to learn a few of the basics before you get there.
Pack light – it will make things like outfit choices so much easier, and leave more space for goodies you might collect along the way. One thing to bear in mind is to take classic clothes which will be suitable no matter the religion – make sure that everything can be covered up that needs to be.
Research the projects you would like to be involved in before you go – then after your arrival you can be assigned with the project that is best suited for you.
Never underestimate the power of hand sanitiser and baby wipes – and ALWAYS bring more than you think will be necessary.
Be willing to work hard – there will (definitely) be sweat, (possibly) blood, and (more likely than you’d think) tears. Volunteering can often be misconstrued as being a holiday, meaning that some people arrive unwilling to put in any hard work. In my experience, I’ve found that the more work you put in the more benefit you get at the end, particularly with building and decorating projects, as you can literally see your hard work taking shape in front of you.
Have fun! Without sounding like too much of a walking talking stereotype (which I probably am already), experiences such as these are the most amazing and incredible way to meet people and make connections all over the world.
Words and images by Daisy Goodman